Where innovation meets luck with Dr. Christian Busch
The author and serendipity fan urges UNLEASH to see the possibility in every uncertain situation.
Why You Should Care
How do we celebrate people who relate to the purpose of an organization?
What's the science-based framework for cultivating smart luck?
The good doctor is here to tell us all.
Listen above or read the full transcript beneath, which has been edited for clarity.
Jon Kennard: I’m here in the grounds of the Tate Modern, in beautiful sunny London with Dr. Christian Busch. You’re in London to talk about your new book. Tell me about your new book.
Christian Busch: It’s called ‘Connect the Dots: The art and science of creating good luck’. And it’s all about saying, look, usually, when we think about luck, we think about it as something that just happens to us, right?
It’s passive, it’s being born into a nice family…stuff that we can’t really pick. But serendipity for the smart, that I’m very interested in. It’s about seeing a little bit more in the unexpected than others, and then connecting the dots and doing something with it. So, an example. Imagine you’re in a coffee shop, and you have erratic hand movements as I do, then you spill a lot of coffee, right? So imagine you spill coffee over someone, that person looks at you slightly annoyed. But you sense there might be something there, you don’t know what it is. But you sense there might be something there.
Now you have a couple of options, right? One is you just say I’m so sorry, you walk outside, and then you think, what could have happened? Had I spoken with that person, option number two, you start that conversation, and that person turns out to become the love of your life, your co-founder, you name it, the point is, our reaction to the unexpected, us making the accident meaningful is what creates that serendipity.
And so when you look back on your life, you’ll see that a lot of those moments that you thought might just have been lucky, you actually had a role in it. You made that happen. And so the book really is about saying what’s the science-based framework for cultivating this smart luck, so that we can all have more of that in our lives.
JK: I mean, it’s a fascinating subject. And it’s certainly not a way that I’ve looked at this, from this point of view before. Is there a desired audience, or desired readership, a type of person who you think would get something out of this book? How can you translate it, say, to HR or L&D departments, and how could they use luck in their work?
CB: Well, it’s interesting, I work a lot with HR departments. And that key idea always is, look, if you’re a person in this fast-changing world, you need to build a muscle for the unexpected, you need to be able to continuously see opportunity, unexpected moments and do something with it.
And so this is a book that helps them to essentially build that muscle for the unexpected. So in training programs, people use it for saying, hey, look, this is how it can help people, be not only anxious about the unexpected but actually do something with it. We work also a lot around innovation. So if you think about how up to 50% of innovations and inventions happen serendipitously. Something goes wrong and then someone’s like, ‘you know what, maybe we can do something with that’.
And so a lot of that is around innovation managers also saying, how do we work around this in terms of helping companies be more innovative? And then the third group is really around saying, how do people themselves create their own meaningful life because a lot of times when you look at the unexpected, you see it as a threat, something that gives you anxiety.
I grew up in Germany; it gives me anxiety to have the unexpected happen, uncertainty, but then you realize, oh, wow, a lot of times the unexpected can be a source of joy, of meaning, of all the potential outcomes.
Companies [I work with] mostly get excited about what practice we can do to allow our employees to do more with the unexpected. So to give an example, it’s simple stuff like asking people in the weekly meeting; what surprised you last week? Where then people might be like, oh, it surprised me that people use our product differently. Or it surprised me that this or this…I’ll give you an example – the potato washing machine.
**baffled looks from Jon at this point**
A couple of years ago in China, a company was working with one of the largest white goods producers in the world. And they received calls from farmers, and farmers told them, your crappy washing machine is always breaking down.
Well, why is it breaking down? We’re trying to wash our potatoes in it, and it doesn’t seem to work. So what would we usually do? We’d probably say, well, that’s not part of our plan; our plan is that we sell clothes washing machines, right? And usually, we’d probably try to educate them and say, don’t wash your products.
The company did the opposite. They said you know what? That’s unexpected. But there are probably a lot of farmers in China, or in the world, that have a similar problem. So why don’t we build in a dirt filter and make it a potato washing machine? And that’s how the potato washing machine became one of their products.
Why am I saying this? Because when you think about HR, what’s HR about? HR is about recruiting people who are able to do more in this world, right? So some companies even ask, ‘do you consider yourself to be lucky?’ when they take on people just to understand, is that someone able to cope with the unexpected?
But then also, when you think about training programs, it’s a lot about the new types of leadership that are required in this world. It’s about saying, how am I able to cope with the unexpected?
JK: That brings me on to my next question, actually, which is something else that your guests mentioned in the book and that you’re a specialist in, and that’s purpose-driven leadership. Is not all leadership purpose-driven? Or is this a particular stratum of leadership thinking – what’s the deal?
CB: Well, it’s really saying how do we as a company play a role in society that is more than just making money and doing somehow well in what we’re doing and really become part of tackling the challenges that are out there.
Obviously, for HR a key concern in terms of getting the best talent, but also retaining the best talent, right? It’s one thing to retain, to have someone join for a year or two, but actually having them over time stay at the company…we’ve seen that a lot of times it depends on that they really buy into the bigger purpose of the company.
And so, everyone nowadays talks about purpose, but we’ve seen a huge disconnect in the narrative of purpose. So in terms of saying, ‘yes, we’re such a great company tackling the sustainable development goals’ and doing all these big things, but when you go into the office on Monday morning, as an employee, you don’t necessarily feel that and so you disconnect, and you might even become cynical about it.
And so a lot of the work is about saying, how do you integrate that into the day-to-day, so if you say you’re a company like MasterCard, and you say, I want to get 500 million people into the financial system, which now has shifted from being a traditional, financial capabilities company towards actually solving a big problem also, for people who societally were not included. That’s a great purpose.
But now in the day-to-day, how do people work on this? How do we make sure that if we promote people, or whenever we promote people, that’s part of the promotion system? How do we incentivize people to do that? How do we celebrate people who really relate to that purpose, versus those people who just, make the most sales and stuff like that? And so it’s really, in a way saying, how do we break down purpose from this ephemeral, abstract thing to the day-to-day reality of people, to incentivize them to really stay and be excited.
JK: So now you’ve tackled luck, the idea of serendipity, other ephemeral ideas of the cosmos, what’s next? What’s the next book, or is that too far ahead?
CB: Well, it’s fascinating, because I think this topic, a lot of our work over the last 10 years, especially with large companies, we just finished a study with over 40 CEOs of large companies, the Procter and Gambles of the world, and we sat down, we tried to understand what is it that makes you truly successful, and it always goes back to the same themes, which is they want to figure out how can I be a strong leader? How can I portray this idea that, hey, we’re in this together, but at the same time, build that muscle for the unexpected?
And so, to be honest, my life for the next five to 10 years is dedicated to saying, how do we take that serendipity mindset that we’ve seen work with those big companies, but also in the day-to-day life of people that gives them so much joy and meaning and success, and how do we essentially bring that into different contexts?
How do we understand what that means for psychology? I’ve had psychologists reaching out and saying, ‘Oh my God, this is a key way for me to help patients decrease anxiety, because it gives them joy in the unexpected’, or parents, saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is a way to reconnect with my kids, because it is all about meaningful connection’. So I think the next year is a lot about saying, when we know that a serendipity mindset works, like what is it in different areas where it works more, and I think that’s also an invitation to your listeners in terms of saying, there’s so much scope here. And, to me, this is a lot about saying, How are we more truthful about how life works?
Because everyone’s always like, yeah this is the strategy. This is the plan. This is not how life works, and we all know it. And so this is about saying, here’s a vocabulary for how life actually unfolds and it’s not passive. It’s an active approach to leadership and to cultivating serendipity.
JK: Wonderful stuff. Christian, thank you so much.
For the full conversation – listen above…
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Editorial content manager
Jon has 20 years' experience in digital journalism and more than a decade in L&D and HR publishing.